The Upper Crust: Pasta al Forno

pasta al forno 2
A crusted ziti. mmmhmm.

I have a theory that the majority of people fall into one of two categories: “crust haters” and “crust lovers”. By crust I mean any sort of crust, sandwich bread crust, pizza crust, pie crust, and of course, the most delicious crust of all crusts (in my opinion); BAKED PASTA crust.

I, for one, am a huge fan of the crust that forms on the edges of a huge tray of lasagna hot from the oven. I always asked my mom to cut me the “crust pieces”, or corner pieces of any sort of casserole or dessert prepared in a square or rectangular pan.

My love of crust doesn’t stop at pasta, it extends to rice dishes as well. I love a good crust on the bottom of a rice dish. That hardened portion where the sauce or seasoning and rice meet in a concentrated chunk of crust is pure heaven on earth.

smuckers
Sandwiches marketed towards “crust haters”.

Many people, however, are not fans of crust. These people would make their mother cut the crust off of sandwiches as children, always request the center piece of lasagna or square pizza without crust, and faithfully cook their rice just to the point of doneness in order to avoid forming a dreaded crust. I’ve even seen sandwiches for kids in the frozen food isle that are marketed as being “crustless”. Wow, what a time to be alive for a “crust hater”, huh?

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Pasta al Forno baked to a semi-crusty perfection!

I have a recipe today that will please both crust lovers and haters alike. The recipe is for Pasta al Forno, a classic Italian dish made of rigatoni or ziti pasta or similar tubular varieties, hard boiled eggs, melty gooey cheese, and any other add-ins you prefer. Some common additions are diced Italian ham, olives, hard boiled eggs, and two or three types of cheese (ricotta, parmesan, provolone). It is all held together by a delicious tomato sauce and baked in the oven. Now, for you “crust haters”, you’ll want to bake this covered for the entire oven time so as  to form minimal crust. Depending on where you lie on the “crust lover” spectrum, you can bake this uncovered for the entire baking time, or first cover it to melt the cheese and then uncover it for some portion of the baking time. My recipe is somewhere in the middle; I bake it covered for 15 minutes, and uncover it for another 15 minutes. You can adjust this sequene to your personal preference.

Gianni, the main character, loved his wine.

I first got the idea to make this dish when I watched an Italian movie called “Mid-August Lunch” or “Pranzo di Ferragosto”. It’s a very funny Italian film from 2008 about a middle-aged man who ends up spending the Italian Ferragosto holiday (August 15) with a bunch of kooky, high-maintenance old ladies, and cooking Pasta al Forno. I’d definitely trade in a few hours of my time with some kooky old ladies to taste some of the delicious baked pasta they made. And they even made a point to mention the importance of forming that delicious Pasta al Forno crust.

Crusting Optional Pasta al Forno

Serves 6 main dish
• 10-12 oz. ziti rigati (or similar tubular pasta)
• 18-20 oz. tomato sauce (either store-bought or homemade works)
• 2 ½ cup mushrooms, sliced
• 3 hard boiled eggs, yolks fully cooked
• ¾-1 cup pitted black olives, drained
• 1 ½ cup Mozzarella cheese, diced into small cubes
• 1 large tomato, diced
• ½ tsp. red pepper flakes (reduce to ¼ tsp. if you prefer food less spicy)
• ½ tsp. “no salt seasoning”
• 1 large garlic clove, minced
• 1 ½ tsp. oregano
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Olive oil, as needed
• Optional (but not really optional): parmesan or shredded mozzarella for topping

IMG_1563
Melty, gooey pasta goodness.

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling, salted water on the stove until just cooked al dente. Drain and set aside.
2. Chop the mushrooms and mince the garlic. Add to a sauté pan and cook with oil of choice. Season with salt and pepper as the mushrooms cook and reduce in size. You can also put the eggs on the stove to boil them at this time as well.
3. To the sauté pan, add in your pasta sauce and stir. Add in your diced tomato and black olives and season again with salt and pepper. Let cook for 1 minute and add into the oregano, red pepper flakes, and “no salt seasoning”. Stir to mix everything well and continue to cook on medium heat for ten to fifteen minutes.
4. Assembling: Add your cooked and drained pasta to your sauce and mix thoroughly to coat all of the pasta. You can do this more easily by transferring your drained pasta to a large pot and adding the sauce in (I learned this the hard and saucy way). Chop your hard boiled eggs into thin slices or chunks, whichever you prefer. Add a layer of sauce-coated pasta to your casserole dish. Sprinkle over it some of your diced mozzarella, followed by some hard boiled egg pieces. Add in the next layer of pasta and sprinkle again with mozzarella and egg pieces. Continue in this fashion until you finish with a layer of pasta. Top with additional shredded mozzarella or parmesan cheese.
5. Loosely cover with foil and bake at 400°F for 15 minutes. Then carefully remove the foil so not to rip off any delicious melted cheese and allow the pasta to bake for another 15-20 minutes. You should achieve a delicious pasta-cheese crust during this time that is the true selling point of your Pasta al Forno (if gooey melted cheese and pasta weren’t enough of a selling point). The longer you leave it in there, the harder the crust gets, so take care not to overdo it (you don’t want the pasta to revert to pre-cooked hardness level or burn).
6. Remove from oven, dip a gigantic spoon into the dish and watch in amazement as your gooey cheese ribbons drizzle out of the casserole dish and onto your plate like kites trailing in a sunny blue sky.

Notes: Use hard mozzarella, not fresh (white ball form). You can add in any other types of vegetables or meat that you like or make the tomato sauce a meat sauce. You can also layer in more types of cheese such as ricotta or parmesan.  This dish is very flexible and easily adapted for meat-lovers or vegetarians.

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12 thoughts on “The Upper Crust: Pasta al Forno

  1. Hi Becky! How have you been doing lately?! I was missing your posts and cooking experiments, so i went through your Pinterest and found this recipe of yours. You posted it during the fortnight I started my blog, I didn’t know you yet at that time, so I’m glad I’ve made this little search and found your fabulous Pasta al Forno! I’m gonna try to find that movie you mentioned “Mid-August Lunch”, it seems like a good idea to set myself in the right context to eat your pasta 😉 And by the way, like you, I’m definitely a Crust Lover!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Sophie,

      Thanks, I’m doing well! I haven’t been on WordPress in a few weeks. After the holidays, things just got so busy. I went straight back to work and then had some medical appointments so I have been missing out on WordPress. I really need to catch up!
      Thanks for checking out my older recipes, I didn’t know that we started our blogs around the same time, that’s pretty cool.
      This is one of my favorite recipes to make during the week because its so easy and makes great leftovers. Yeah, you should definitely watch Mid-August Lunch too. It’s a pretty funny movie. It’ll make you want to eat Pasta al Forno immediately though hehe
      The crust is the best part, right? 😀

      How are you doing? Have you been making any great new recipes lately?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good to hear from you! And i’m sure you’ll soon be back on track with great recipes to post about! I’ll be looking forward to reading!!
        It’s funny you mentioned the crust again, coz now all I want is to cook just anything if there is the promise of a crust in the end, hahaha! 😀
        I’ve been pretty busy with work too lately, but I do make an effort to make time in the evening to cook and post on WP. I guess part of my chance to do so is that my husband is currently busy with his own occupations at night too, so it gives me the time I need for my own stuffs (we work together all day, so a little time off each other is nice sometimes). I’ve recently cooked just a bit because I’m on a strict diet at the moment (but went through Pinterest far more, to eat virtual foods with the eyes only). Still, I’ve written quite a few nice posts since Xmas. I’ve decided as well (and started) to occasionally pick a country (or an American State) and cook a special dish from there, then write a post about it; I hope to travel in my head this way!
        Well, that’s about it!

        Like

      2. hahaha I definitely feel the same about crusts, if I see a recipe that’s baked or ends up with a crust I’m much more likely to make it.
        Yeah its nice to have your own activities at night sometimes so there’s not too much togetherness.
        I was really addicted to pinterest too for a long time and would drool over food when I was bored or hungry (bad idea when hungry haha). I actually stopped for a while because I’m pregnant so I felt nauseated when I’d look at even pictures of food. I was also cooking and posting less partly because of that too. But now as things progress I’m feeling better so my pinterest and cooking time has increased a lot.
        I like you idea for picking different countries and states for food. It will definitely keeps things new and you won’t get bored with what you’re eating! I look forward to reading about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Wow!!! So great news!!!!! Congrats on your pregnancy, that’s awesome!! Also, it’s good you’re feeling better now and that things can get back to (almost) normal! You do have a lot on your plate right now, but I hope we’ll continue cooking and exchanging about it for still some more time before the baby comes and things go crazy for you, haha!

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    2. Thank you! I’m really excited but also I’m a nervous person so I get nervous all the time about little things. Cooking is actually a nice distraction from stress so I will definitely keep in touch and when I don’t feel like cooking new recipes myself I’ll just check out what you’re making haha 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Becky, how are you doing?! I just wanted to let you know that I tried this very recipe of yours last night, and it made the perfect dinner, that was just delicious! The melty gooey cheese was a blessing for the eyes and the mouth after a long week at work. I made it with a light crust and replaced mozzarella cheese by Emmenthal cheese, didn’t add the hard-boiled eggs, used the Parmesan cheese to sprinkle over AFTER baking in the oven (that is to say on my individual plate after serving), and I replaced the red pepper flakes by the pepperoncino powder that I had bought in Italy 2 months ago. G-d bless you and your great ideas! :)))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Sophie, thanks! This is one of my favorite things to make too, because who doesn’t love pasta+sauce+cheese, right? And it’s really customisable too because you can add in other types of cheese like ricotta or different meat. The other day I ate at an italian restaurant and for the first time I saw Pasta al Forno on the menu so of course I had to order it. Their version was a little different, it had crumbled sausage bits in it, which was really delicious. I might try it with ground turkey sausage sometime.
      I’m doing well. I’m sort of in hectic daze trying to finish analyzing data and write my thesis that’s due in less than a month. I had a job interview that went very well so I’m hoping that I hear some positive news from that soon too.
      How are you doing?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right, everybody loves this combo! In Nice, we have a few places making Pasta Al Forno, but I had it only once (now that I think about it…). It’s great you found it on a menu, and I love the idea of adding sausage crumbs in, I will try that too and add up some hot spices such as the pepperoncino powder I bought in Ventimiglia. Good luck with finishing your thesis on time AND GETTING THE JOB !!!! I’m all good on my side, working lots and trying to make plans for summer holidays. A big program!!!

        Like

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